In first moves to draw political maps, Arizona redistricting panel eyes major changes

By: - October 4, 2021 6:24 pm

Members of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission met Oct. 4, 2021, in the Phoenix city council chambers to discuss initial changes to the grid maps approved the previous month. L to R: Shereen Lerner, Derrick Watchman, Erika Neuberg, David Mehl, Douglas York. Photo by Jeremy Duda | Arizona Mirror

On their long-awaited first day of mapmaking, the five members of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission proposed a raft of changes that would be dramatic departures from the current congressional and legislative districts.

The commissioners met at Phoenix City Council chambers on Monday, the first of two consecutive days of meetings, to make their first adjustments to the grid map they approved last month. Many of the changes stemmed from public testimony they heard during a statewide “listening tour” over the summer and during a more recent series of meetings on the grid maps

The commissioners started with the congressional map, including one proposal that could have major ramifications for the race for an open seat in the Tucson area.

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One of the six criteria that the Arizona Constitution requires that the AIRC use to draw district boundaries is the Voting Rights Act, which requires that minority voters have districts where they’re able to elect their preferred candidates. And the commissioners emphasized the importance of doing so on both the congressional and legislative maps. 

Arizona has two Voting Rights Act-protected congressional districts that cover the heavily Latino parts of the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas. The Tucson district also stretches into southern Yuma and up to the western Phoenix area around Buckeye.

Commissioner David Mehl, a Republican, said he doesn’t want to see the Tucson-based district cut into Maricopa County. To make up the population it would lose, he said the district could take in more of central Tucson. Meanwhile, the district that includes the remainder of Tucson, along with Cochise County, could extend further north into the foothills area and take in Marana, Oro Valley and southern Pinal County. 

The proposal would likely make the 2nd Congressional District, arguably the most competitive congressional district in the state, more Republican leaning.

And it would make the successor to the 1st Congressional District less sprawling. The current district, which runs from the Four Corners to Tucson’s northern outskirts, is 58,608 square-miles — larger than 25 states. It is the largest, non-at-large congressional district in the country.

Democratic Commissioner Derrick Watchman, a member of the Navajo Nation, repeatedly stressed the importance of keeping his tribe’s lands intact in both the congressional and legislative maps, and keeping as many tribes together as possible, especially in the northern and eastern parts of the state where many tribes are geographically concentrated.

Mehl said he supported that idea, and suggested that the new district in that area could cover the entire northern part of the state from east to west. Currently, the non-tribal areas of Mohave County are part of a different district. 

“It is a large area but at least it’s all in the north and doesn’t come all the way down to the south, and would achieve keeping all the tribes together and having at least a somewhat more compact district for our biggest district,” Mehl said.

While one of the six constitutional redistricting criteria calls for municipal and county boundaries to be kept intact, Democratic Commissioner Shereen Lerner said there will be areas on the map where that isn’t possible. Lerner noted that Republican Commissioner Douglas York cited the heavy population growth in the East Valley, which he said would likely necessitate two congressional districts in the area. 

She proposed that Mesa, which has a population of nearly half a million people, be divided between its eastern and western portions, with the western part in the same district as Tempe and the eastern part with areas like Gilbert and Queen Creek.

“It’s not uniform, even though it’s all Mesa. There are different perspectives between west Mesa and east Mesa in terms of communities of interest and their connections to their surrounding communities,” Lerner said. 

Independent Chairwoman Erika Neuberg — whose vote will break any ties on the five-member commission — quickly warmed to the idea, and suggested that it could extend to the legislative map, as well. Tempe and west Mesa have a more urban feel than the eastern part of the city, she said, and there’s a lot of collaboration between them when it comes to transportation.

“I’m not quite sure if it’s the leaders that are working so well or the population, but there’s something going on in that area that I think warrants looking into maybe keeping together,” Neuberg said.

Neuberg hinted at big changes in the West Valley, as well, though she avoided specifics. The southwestern part of the Phoenix area saw tremendous growth over the past decade. Much of the area is part of one of the more curious legislative districts, District 13, which runs from the northern part of Yuma through Buckeye and into the Phoenix area’s southwestern suburbs.

Yuma is split in both the congressional and legislative maps, a configuration that seems likely to continue. A decade ago, the last commission separated the two, with the northern, more conservative half becoming part of District 13, and the southern half — predominantly Democratic and Latino — joining a district that includes the Tohono O’odham nation and parts of Tucson.

Residents of Yuma, Democrat and Republican alike, have repeatedly urged the AIRC to continue that split, and the commissioners seemed inclined to respect those wishes. Lerner said it was one of the few areas on the map where most of the public testimony the commission heard was in favor of maintaining the status quo rather than making changes.

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Other areas of the map are likely to see noteworthy changes based on public testimony. 

The northernmost part of Maricopa County, including Anthem, Cave Creek, New River and surrounding areas, is currently part of a legislative district dominated by Yavapai County. Many residents urged the commission to draw them in with the northern Phoenix area instead. Lerner proposed honoring those requests.

Mehl suggested putting the Tucson foothills and other areas to the north of the city — the conservative portions of predominantly liberal Pima County — in one legislative district, which would be in line with requests the commission heard from numerous residents of the area. 

Elsewhere in southern Arizona, Mehl suggested putting Cochise County together with Graham County, the southern part of Greenlee County, the “defense corridor” in Pima County, including Sahuarita and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, into a single legislative district that would also include Green Valley.

In northern Arizona, the commissioners were in agreement on keeping many of the tribes together in a single district. To ensure that the district has adequate population — each legislative district must have about 238,000, and each congressional district must have about 794,000 residents — Mehl proposed that the district include Flagstaff, rather than snaking down Arizona’s eastern boundary to take in tribes such as the San Carlos Apache and White Mountain Apache.

Some commissioners also made broader statements about what they’d like to see in the maps, in terms of following the six criteria in the Arizona Constitution: equal population, the Voting Rights Act, respect for natural and political boundaries, compactness and contiguity, respect for communities of interest, and competitiveness. 

Neuberg acknowledged early in the meeting that the Arizona Constitution instructs the commission to consider competitiveness only when it won’t be detrimental to the other criteria. But in some cases, she said, creating competitive districts may actually aid the commission in following the other criteria. 

Communities of interest is a broad, vague term for any grouping of people with common concerns, and can be anything from a neighborhood to a transportation corridor to a group of people who rely on the same industry or employer to a racial, ethnic or religious group. Arizonans have submitted maps detailing 182 distinct communities of interest to the AIRC. 

Neuberg said Arizona’s current legislative districts seem to be “much more extreme” than the congressional districts, which she assumed resulted from the previous commission’s attempts to respect communities of interest. But the lack of competitiveness in some districts may result in certain communities of interest feeling unrepresented, she said. 

“As we look at the legislative districts, I’d like to understand… where the communities are and where certain communities may have been disenfranchised,” Neuberg said. “That’s something that’s very much on my mind. And again, not from the perspective of competitiveness, in and of itself. I’m focused on, are there communities of interest that are not being represented because they’re being drowned out?”

Mehl countered that competitiveness is often in the eye of the beholder. He said that during the AIRC’s public hearings, the commissioners heard from residents of two adjoining districts. Residents of one party considered one of the districts to be non-competitive and the other to be competitive, and it was vice versa for members of the other party. When Mehl looked at how the two districts performed over the last several elections, he found that their partisan performance was very similar.

“If your party was losing in that district, it wasn’t competitive. And if your party was winning, it was competitive,” Mehl said. “However competitive or non-competitive they were, they were about identical. But in peoples’ perceptions, that’s how they were perceived.”

The AIRC has adopted two metrics it will use to measure competitiveness

Mehl had his own concerns regarding the criteria. While federal law and court precedent say that congressional districts must have nearly identical populations, down to the person, the courts have traditionally given states much more leeway with legislative districts. Oftentimes, districts with majorities of minority voters are underpopulated to ensure compliance with the Voting Rights Act. Republicans unsuccessfully sued the last commission over overpopulation imbalances between legislative districts, which were intended to comply with the Voting Rights Act and to make one district more competitive. 

The legislative districts don’t need to be identical in population the way congressional districts do, Mehl said, but the AIRC should do its best to ensure that they’re as close as possible.

“I think we should not be cavalier on the legislative side about equal population,” Mehl said. “I think the wording in the constitution is very clear that equal means equal.”

The commission will meet again on Tuesday at 8 a.m. to continue its adjustments to the grid maps. Mapping consultant Doug Johnson told the commissioners that his team will have an “in-progress map” to present to the AIRC. 

Whatever the commission decides this week, Johnson reminded the AIRC that everything is subject to change until it completes the mapping process, which isn’t expected to conclude until late December, at the earliest. 

“No decision is final until the whole map is final,” he said.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Associate Editor Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”

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